Arctic Lake: Musical Footprints [Interview]

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

Interview with Arctic Lake

Arctic Lake's music feels like a breath of fresh air: it has a purity to it, with nothing clouding the heart of the song itself as chords emanate like soothing waves. Surprisingly, although it seems so delicately purposeful, this serenity wasn’t something the London-based trio had in mind from the start - in fact, they set out to achieve almost the opposite.

“We actually started out as a heavy band, rock-orientated for sure,” vocalist Emma Foster explains. “We eventually realised that I was having to shout to be heard, and although there was loads of energy, it meant no one could hear the lyrics or connect with the meaning behind the music. Paul played guitar when we all met, and then one day he just sat behind the piano and started playing the chords to ‘Limits’. Andy was testing out an electronic kit, and we just jammed ‘Limits’ and wrote everything in a matter of minutes. It was so natural. We were torn between a few songs for a while - some heavy, some super chilled - and then when we got to the studio and laid them down it was clear which worked and felt right. We never looked back!”

It would make sense for a name like “Arctic Lake” to emerge from this palette of tranquility, but ironically it was a choice made before they refined their sound. “It was actually a lucky accident,” instrumentalist Paul Holliman remarks. “We came up with the name completely out of the blue without thinking too much about it. After a while we started making more chilled-out stuff and the name then started to make sense!”

The name, now such a perfect image to represent the soundscapes that the trio paint, raises the question if the songs themselves are inspired by a surrounding calm. As it turns out, the music helps them to find an inner calm instead. ”To be honest, our writing surroundings aren’t very peaceful,” says Paul. “There’s always something going on outside my flat, and our studio doesn’t have the best soundproofing! But I think sometimes living in a busy city like London actually helps to write more peaceful music - it’s like an escape from all the madness without having to physically leave.” The songs embody this sense of escape, filling the deep corners of the listener’s consciousness.

The band seems to walk an otherworldly line between organic instrumentation and an electronic expanse, yet all of the elements woven in still manage to sound, well - human. Third member Andy Richmond explains how it’s important to keep a balance between keeping a track sounding natural while still being able to keep it fresh and electronic. “In the past we’ve experimented with things like field recordings and lo-fi recordings to give it a real organic element, which was really enjoyable for us," he relates. "I think in terms of choosing whether to play something in organically or whether to use its electronic counterpart always happens in the studio for us. We usually work from a demo track which is mainly virtual instruments, and if we can make it sound better on our natural instruments, then it makes its way into the track. Paul played a really beautiful upright in our latest singles, and even hearing the creak of the stool or his fingers on the keys makes a track so much more human and relatable. We also went a little crazy with our first EP and ended up recording bike sounds and keys, and outro of the closing track ‘Too Close’ integrates voice memos of us talking set over a wash of keys. There are recordings in there from our very first rehearsal together 6 years ago, right into the final vocal takes.”

Throughout various singles and two EPs since their 2015 debut, it’s clear that their music maintains its breathtaking beauty in the subtleties, creating an atmosphere that you have to really stop and listen to, or put on with the aim of becoming immersed in it - something rare to find in today’s music. “We live in a time where everything is available instantly,” Paul observes. “You can get anything delivered to you within 24 hours, watch any film or TV show instantly, and listen to virtually any song ever whenever you like, so it’s no wonder that people’s habits have changed. There’s so much music out there that I don’t blame people at all for maybe being less patient - I find myself doing the same thing sometimes when going through New Music Friday or other playlists. If something doesn’t grab you within a few seconds, then there’s so many other choices that it’s easy to find something else to listen to.”

When listening to new music, what is it that captivates each of them on the first listen, then? “We all seem to notice different qualities of songs, which is really interesting,” Andy notes. “I’ve always found myself more occupied by verses than choruses in a song, and the general flow and sound. I think Paul will admit he’s a lover of a strong chorus and the way a song progresses, and I know Emma is always captivated by a strong vocal or aura. I think a lot of the time it depends on the song, but the thing that brought us together is that we really do appreciate and love beautiful music, so if there’s something in a song that’s so gentle and fragile that it takes a hold of you, it’s something we’ll definitely notice.”

The trio are not only on the same page in this appreciation of soft emotion, but have a more lighthearted unifying energy as well. “We’re all quite strange and weird which seems to have worked out pretty well,” Andy continues. “I think a long car journey on a tour would be pretty boring if any of us were any different. There’s also a really good energy because there’s three of us! Paul is probably the weirdest out of the three of us, but he makes up for it with his very beautiful piano playing and ability to eat three times his own bodyweight of ice cream in one sitting. In honesty, Emma is probably the one with the most talent and vision, but she sleeps for 14 hours a day, so we see very little of it!” he laughs.

In any Arctic Lake track, you’ll hear Emma’s talent through glistening vocals. Spreading through and chilling the space with an endless shimmer, it’s almost as if her voice is the atmosphere itself. It’s a force that may have even influenced the instrumentation sometimes. “I never really think of it like that, but [it] definitely [has],” Emma says. “The guys are amazing and have always been so supportive of my voice. I think at the start that encouraged them to go outside of what they knew and learn how to work with it best. On the flip side, I used to sing jazz and soul and everything in between before meeting these two, so they’ve definitively shaped my singing style as well. I guess we all just learnt how to compliment each other.” And every piece of the whole is decidedly complimentary, giving the impression of sounds floating in and out as if carried by a passing breeze.

The lyrics, not only matching the music, but existing in a fluid state of empathy, create an effortless sort of connection with anyone who listens - this is music that understands. “I think the longer we do this, the more time that passes, I realise how important my lyrics are to me,” Emma reflects. “They really are like a footprint of my life; who I was, where I was, and how I’ve grown from that, so one hundred percent they still resonate with me. On the other hand, I sometimes look back and realise that I no longer feel the same way I did when writing a track, and that’s always difficult, but then you go on stage and share it with a room full of people and the emotion fuels you again, so it’s never truly lost.”

Lyrically, what does she feel represents the essence of the band? “I always think ‘Night Cries’ is really beautiful and understated,” she answers. “It’s bare in a raw way, and I think that fits us well. But the song ‘Too Close’ always makes me want to squeeze the boys and never let them go! I wrote it about something personal, but then we had this year of really fighting to continue our career in music - we all went through a really tough time together both inside and outside of the band. Eventually we were in the studio with Matt Gooderson basically having recording/therapy sessions with him (which is what most studio time is like for everyone I think) and it was the last track on the EP ‘Closer’. It has this massive cathartic ending and I just teared up every time. It really encapsulated that year for us and we ended up getting all the voice notes and recordings of us speaking while creating it and laying it underneath the track at the end. I love it.”

Arctic Lake collaborated with Gooderson again earlier this year, this time for a cover of the Cocteau Twins’ “Cherry-coloured Funk”. “We were actually asked by the lovely chaps from Solomon Grey, who wrote the score for the show ‘Back To Life’, to cover that song especially for the last scene of the show,” Paul explains. “So we didn’t choose it ourselves, but we were obviously very pleased to be asked to do it. We spent some time working on an arrangement that felt like it would suit our style but also was still recognisable as the original, and then went in with Matt to produce it - it was a really comfortable process as we knew how to work with each other. In the end we were really happy with how it came out, and thankfully so were the producers of the show! If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s really great and you should totally check it out.”

One of the band’s following releases, back in April, was a track titled “Holding On”. Although a seemingly heavier song, it took a while for the meaning to hit Emma. “When I wrote the 'Holding On' lyrics I didn’t really feel any attachment to them. It wasn’t until we got into the studio that it really started weighing down on me and I connected with it. We had to record it in parts because I just kept crying. It often takes me some time to come to terms with what a song is about, and I guess as a creative you tend to feed those experiences whether good or bad so that you can really feel the emotion and allow yourself to write about it. But I would say the hardest part, and the ‘holding on’ of things for the sake of your art is just that you have to relive it, you record it, you replay it every time you sing it on stage but by facing it, you deal with it and that definitively helps you to heal.”

Their latest single, "Shed a Tear", is one that all three members of the band connect with. “It’s a sad song about heartbreak essentially, but Paul took the lead with it and I know how much it means to him,” Emma says. “It’s also one of the few songs we’ve done with happy music to accompany such a sad sentiment, so you can listen to one of our songs without feeling sad for once!” With the trio’s signature piano chords and cascading synths, the track could ease anyone’s pain. They treated us to a live version of it, too (see below).

And there’s much more to come, with a tour as well as another single in the near future. “It’s a really exciting time for us at moment,” Andy says. “We have quite a bit going on! We’ve just released our second single this year, and we’re looking forward to heading out on our U.K. tour later in October. Emma and I have started to get a little visually creative and are (very, very slowly) teaching ourselves to use a camera, so you can expect some visuals to accompany the new single.”

“The [next track] really gets me,” Emma expresses. “We wrote it so long ago and it makes me sad to know I once felt a certain way. That’s what I meant earlier about lyrics being like a footprint - they really remind you of different phases within your life. That one’s going to be hard to sing for sure.”

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